My mother-in-law rarely ate. She drank water, black coffee, and an occasional glass of wine. She prepared nutritious meals for her family but she skipped the carb, and ate the protein with a salad. She didn’t eat sweets or salty snacks, but it seemed like all she had to do was look at food, and it attached itself to her midsection. By the time she was 50, her arms and legs were stick-like, but her abdomen and backside had expanded. She said she felt like Frosty the Snowman in heels.
What I was observing is a common experience for many women at midlife. Now before you scream “hormones!” or “genetics!” and throw your arms up in defeat, there are things you can do to manage your body’s aging process and deflate the flotation device circling your body. And, you can do them without wearing a hole on your treadmill belt and declaring war on carbohydrates. Read on, sisters.
In our 30s, women begin to lose muscle mass. This occurs naturally as part of the aging process. Why is this significant? Less lean muscle means we’re burning fewer calories, and anything we’re not burning, is stored as fat. This is the mysterious “phenomenon” women describe when they eat and exercise the way they always have, but inexplicably put on weight. Just like their activity levels have slowed down over the years, their body’s fat metabolism has slowed down as well. Less activity, less lean muscle, slower fat metabolism, means more weight.
A drop in estrogen triggers an increase in cortisol (the “stress” hormone). Elevated cortisol means increased blood sugar, which raises insulin, the fat storage hormone. Fat stored in other areas of the body migrates and accumulates around the belly, where our fat cells begin to store more…fat! And not in a cute, plump way. Fat stored between vital organs is linked to high cholesterol, heart disease, breast and colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Cortisol also causes cravings for sweet, high fat, and salty foods.
On the other side, when there is too much estrogen relative to progesterone in the body, estrogen dominance can occur. If you are already overweight, this is not good news. Existing fat tissue stores and then manufactures more estrogen from other hormones, creating more fat, and a discouraging cycle of fat production ensues.
If you are experiencing chronic stress (and who isn’t stressed during midlife?!?), you are depleting progesterone in order to create cortisol. This imbalance causes your pancreas to overproduce insulin, making it difficult for your body to burn fat. If this sounds eerily like the preceding paragraphs, it is. Hormones in the female body play out Goldilocks and the Three Bears all over our midsection. Everything has to be “just right,” or the pounds creep in.
So, midlife is weight gain waiting to happen. Now what can you do about it?
1. Increase your lean muscle mass. Do you have to pump iron like Arnold? No. Start small. Get comfortable with body weight exercises and stretches, and work your way up. By the way, cardio has its place in weight loss, but it doesn’t build lean muscle (sorry but, Peloton is not going to build lean muscle).
2. Cut back on your food. You need to be in a caloric deficit to lose weight.
3. Eat more fiber. Yup, grandma was right. Nutrient dense foods help to keep you feeling full. Fiber also boosts your metabolism, because your body burns more calories digesting fiber-rich foods than foods that don’t contain fiber.
4. Sleep seven to eight hours every night. Quality of sleep affects the hormones that stimulate appetite and fullness. Combine that with the cravings cortisol creates, and it’s a perfect storm for weight gain. So, sleep on it. A rested body craves less.
5. Reduce stress. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but you have to find ways to deal with it). Remember the whole fat accumulation around the midsection thing? Cortisol is not your friend. Manage your stress, and activate cortisol when you really need it (like when a wild beast is chasing you).
6. Drink water. Many times when you think you are hungry, you are just dehydrated. It feels the same. Drink up so that you feel full, and tend to eat less. Combine water with the fiber, and your constitution will reward you with regularity (something you learn to appreciate with age).
7. Eat. Seriously. Don’t be my mother-in-law and skip meals or give yourself tiny portions. Eat five to six smaller meals per day. Eliminate spikes in blood sugar (which lead to cravings) by eating at regular intervals.
Oh. I almost forgot about genetics. For those of you who latch onto the “being overweight runs in my family, so I’m destined to be overweight, too” rationale, think again. In integrative medicine circles, the statement “Genetics load the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger,” is popular. And for good reason. I’ve just listed seven ways to deal with midlife weight gain, and they are all related to lifestyle. Want to change your body? Change your lifestyle, and feel better in the process. Midlife should be enjoyed, not endured.
Coach Laurie Hall is a certified health and wellness coach at KK Wellness Consulting. She is a 55 year old mother of four, fitness enthusiast, and midlife lifestyle editor. If weight gain is affecting your enjoyment of life, contact Laurie for a conversation about how to get comfortable in your own skin again: https://www.kkwellnessconsulting.com/freeconsult